BTB Marketing in A Weak Economy

A weak economy presents a dilemma for business-to-business marketers.

Keep marketing, and you risk wasting money on companies that are not buying. Stop marketing, and you risk losing share to your competitors. It may seem like a no-win situation, but it does not have to be. Even if demand for your product or service seems to have evaporated overnight — it really has not. It has only been delayed by economic uncertainty. Companies are understandably nervous about heavy spending in a year when profits are down. As soon as CEOs see better times ahead, they will loosen the reins on capital spending.

You need a strategy that conserves marketing resources until then, yet positions you to gain market share when companies are again ready to buy. The following is a checklist of weak-economy strategies to keep marketing during uncertain times:

• Define your weak economy survival strategy. Even with capital budgets frozen, companies still make decisions about capital spending. Dollars spent generating qualified leads — and keeping them warm until conditions improve — will be well spent. Everything else is expendable right now. It is time for your marketing program to work harder.

• Cut the fluff from your marketing budget. Advertisements in general business publications target loosely defined audiences such as business readers and investors with vague messages that produce awareness. These ads cost a lot, yet often produce no measurable results. Cut these ads in favor of media that produce measurable results — in the form of qualified leads. Target specific, high-potential industries through vertical publications, direct mail, e-mail, catalogs, telemarketing and trade shows.

• Retool your message from branding to benefits. With the binge of ill-fated dot-com ads fresh in mind, it is clear that brand advertising can take years to work — and does not necessarily result either in acquisition or loyalty. There is only one proven technique for selling products. Communicate benefits so compelling that your prospects believe your product is worth the price. Now is the time to make sure your marketing materials do a good job of selling your product. How? Try this Advertising 101 exercise. List all of your product’s key features. Then translate each one into a key user benefit. Remember that features exist in the product and benefits are what customers experience when using the product. For example, Feature: Enables all users to easily share, edit and comment on documents. Benefit: Boosts work group productivity. Once you have your list, highlight the most significant one or two benefits. Give this list to your creative team. Tell those in the team you want all of your marketing materials to communicate these benefits — with the big benefits featured in the headlines. Then use this list to evaluate every new communication before it is published.

• Adjust your message to the current mood. In last year’s booming economy, many businesses took a liberal approach to spending. They wanted products that helped them get bigger, better, faster. This year, business buyers are only likely to purchase products that will make them more efficient. Give them a new sales pitch geared to cost reduction and return on investment. Help them justify the cost of the purchase to their CEOs — with charts and graphs that document improvements in productivity.

• Sweeten your value proposition. Look for ways to convince hot prospects they will get a better deal now than if they wait. Price drops are the first thing many marketers try. But you may not have to give away the store. Could you sweeten the deal by offering free extra stuff — if they will purchase within the current quarter? IBM announced lower financing interest rates in February and simultaneously increased the total amount companies could finance. Could you waive or discount installation fees? How about offering a free year of technical support? Could you throw in a free upgrade or enhancement the customer will receive at some future time? Can you reduce the price by cutting out bells and whistles?

• If you have lots of leads in the pipeline but no bites, you need to keep them warm until the economy improves. Otherwise, your competitors may steal them. You can still move prospects along the purchase decision curve — from awareness to interest to evaluation. This way, when their budget dollars become available, they will be ready to buy. Start by asking your sales force to keep working your “A” leads. They can make periodic relationship-oriented contacts, offering to provide additional information and — in the process — scoping out each prospect’s level of interest. This may prove challenging for salespeople because they view themselves as closers. Consider incentivizing them for every relationship contact they make.

• Send a series of educational e-mails to your “B” and “C” leads to highlight facets of your products and services. This will help keep your product on their capital budget lists as time passes. Always include a hand-raiser offer in these e-mails to uncover high interest. White papers, free consultations, free books and other educational materials will do nicely. A recent trend is offering educational Web seminars. Web seminars have become popular because they cut costs for companies and greatly reduce the attendee’s time commitment. Siebel Systems has consistently promoted Web seminars this year despite economic uncertainty.

• Give your marketing program a haircut. Most BTB marketing budgets can be trimmed without reducing effectiveness — even after cutting out general advertising.

Determine which of the following ideas apply to your marketing program:

• Direct mail lead generation. Reduce your mail quantities by cutting out your weakest prospects. Test downsizing your creative formats. Perhaps a self-mailer would be just as effective as an envelope mailing in order to save inserting costs.

• Direct mail catalogs. Reduce trim size so your book cuts out of a press sheet more efficiently. Your printer will be glad to help you with this. Often just trimming a quarter of an inch can add up to huge savings in paper and postage.

• Trade shows. Limit trade show participation to only those shows where you are certain attendees represent a large audience of qualified prospects. Cut your booth size in half. Reduce your staff on hand to two people. You can cut your costs in half and still generate plenty of leads.

• Just keep marketing. Even in a weak economy, successful companies keep marketing. They just do it smarter. Cut the fluff. Shift from branding to benefits. Sweeten your value proposition. Give your program a haircut. These strategies will stretch your marketing dollars. Better yet, your company will be positioned to gain share the minute the economy improves. And it will improve. Once you experience the strong results you can generate from a lean, mean marketing program, you will very likely want to stay with this approach even in good times.

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